This morning I had a coffee at my local cafe. It’s not a chain, in fact it’s a one off. It doesn’t take cards, but offers free wifi. The food is just what you want, a price you want to pay, and the coffee is variable depending who is making it. In fact it’s pretty perfect. Perfect in the sense that it has flaws (no cards, variable coffee), and that’s great, because that’s life, and the fact that I know its flaws means that I have a relationship with it. So hats off to you Oliver Senior, you have designed a service that I have a real relationship with, and that’s even before I describe how nice the people are who work there… I’m glad to say the toilet has no flaws, in a ‘loo at home’ kind of way. In fact, it takes my relationship with the place and its people to another level when I read the strategically positioned notice (see picture above).
On the face of it, you can see that the cafe has scored the treble, a real service with appropriate imperfections, lovely people delivering the service, and now a deepening of that relationship by overtly telling me more. But the notice really stuck with me, and a trigger of much thought.
My first thought was, what does this say about the modern economy, particularly as the ‘Hospitality Industry’ is such a significant part of our ‘nation of shop keepers’ economy? Really, how can the Welfare to Work programme operate under these conditions? How do you create jobs in the service economy when so many people delivering the services do so as merely income generating exercise while they prepare for alternate careers? I feel for the people trying to evaluate the success of the Welfare to Work programme. I love our Backr service even more. (My second thought is finding myself questioning my outrage at Starbucks lack of paying taxes, thinking – well, maybe they’re financing Higher Education, and we should be grateful? And then I remember their guy in the Select Committee, and my outrage returns )
Then I think of the cafe as a business, one supposedly run by three trainees – a trainee actor, a traineee business woman and a trainee counsellor – plus, a home baker and a traveller (I suspect the basement kitchen staff might not be included in this list.). And I’m thinking – can you scale such an enterprise? I think of Cafe Rouge, Starbucks, Strada – all places you go to and know exactly what to expect, their predictability attracting some, but also repelling many. You don’t get any flaws (just service failures like badly cooked food, or a rude waiter), and you don’t get a relationship through the service. As the people line up behind the tills at Pret, you get shouted at, politely, but time is of the essence, but they still take cards. You can see they’ve been trained, the supply chain is automated, the names are on the badges, not on their lips. Ultimately, the bureaucracy has been built to scale up, and at the expense of a relationship based service. There are of course exceptions, I was at Pret in Kings Cross station last week, and someone behind the till said the the customer in front of me – your usual? But, that’s so unusual.
So, how do we scale relationship based services? How do you create natural local services with personality within a huge network? This has to be one of the largest challenges of the future of the Welfare State. This isn’t about localism and shoving the bureaucracy to the front line, which doesn’t guarantee any better success at creating relationship based services. This is about building relationships with service users (or people, as we like to call them.)
We’re grappling with these issues at Participle as we scale our Circle and Life Programmes. In part, you have to structure the network to make sure a relationships based service is built in at every stage – design, testing, local scaling, regional scaling, and then national. Co-ownership helps, like our partners in Rochdale Borough Housing which recently become a mutual. But, co-ownership breeds a specific culture, and even then, people are not sure how they should behave in practice. t becomes the focus, rather than the relationships. In fact, structuring it correctly only takes you so far.
Let’s turn the telescope around, and look through the other end. A relative recently had a biopsy at his local inner London NHS hospital. The operation was in the morning, and he was worried that he couldn’t attend his grandchild’s birthday party in the afternoon. He asked the Irish nurse if he would be in a fit state to attend the party. Her reply (start Irish accent) – Och youse’ll be riding your horse in the afternoon – (end Irish accent). It made him laugh. He told me. It made me laugh. It still makes me laugh. Even writing this I smile. I think, how can a cancer nurse keep up that level of personality in all that she must face, when dealing with patients, and when dealing with the NHS system around her? Of course, they went on to talk about the grandchildren and had a great old time, despite the intrusive operation. He’s was then moved on to another department, and now another hospital, in fact. He hasn’t seen the nurse again. That’s possibly unavoidable, but most importantly he feels better about the NHS and his treatments ahead. That’s good for him, but even better for the NHS, because happy patients are less work. And, now we have a new family saying, if anyone is worried about anything, a test at school, anything, we say (in bad Irish accents) – Och youse’ll be riding your horse in the afternoon. A small, but important, good outcome of a relationship based service.
So, how can we create services that have the personality that builds relationships? The standard answer is, it’s about culture, and it’s about people. But as we know, both are hard to ‘control’, particularly at scale. At Participle, we’re learning how to get this right, but to do that, we have to replicate the value and personality of the local cafe, and cautiously observe the operational structure of Starbucks. A better answer, I would suggest, is that it’s all about feelings. A good service knows how to manage (and process) the feelings of people giving and taking it. We must all accept this: People are wise. ‘Customers’ know about call-centres. People know when a script is being read. People know when something and someone has integrity. It’s a feeling, right? And so it’s not a question (Mr.Starbucks) of ‘servicing’ the ‘customer’ in the right way, it’s not about ‘processing’ them with specific ‘actions’, to create predictable ‘outcomes’. Sorry. It’s about understanding the person in some small way, connecting with them, and building on that connection.
The greatest misconception of those delivering services is that this isn’t possible because it takes time. It doesn’t have to. The most costly element of any service is service failure, not service success. So, all call-centre staff, don’t ask us, ‘How are you doing today?’ or ‘Can I help you with anything else, today?’ We see through that. What we want is for you to say, ‘Sorry, can you say that again? I’m a bit hungover, it was my Mum’s birthday last night.’ Then you’ll build a connection with me, and we can take it from there, and who knows, it may even lead to a relationship of sorts, even if for just a few minutes, or even from a distance. But chances are, if you make a connection, you can build a relationship, and from there, the possibilities are endless. The trick is…. scaling it… because you can’t write “Tell them you have a hangover from the night before” in a manual… And that’s why we like the local cafe, because they don’t have a manual. They just feel it. And in order for that to be of value, there has to be ‘bend’ designed into the service, it can’t be rigid.
Hugo Manassei, Principal Partner at Participle